They Will Have to Kill Us First
THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST, documentary, not rated; in English, French, Bambara, Songhay, and Tamashek with subtitles; The Screen, 3 chiles
A ban on music in Mali is like a ban on baguettes in France, or pasta in Italy, or vodka in Russia. And yet that’s what happened, in 2012, when jihadist rebels took control of vast areas of northern Mali, including the cities of Gao and Timbuktu. They imposed strict Sharia law and forbade all music, live or broadcast.
Many Malian musicians fled, many taking refuge in the south in Bamako, the capital. And this is where filmmaker Johanna Schwartz finds them, living in an anguished exile that recalls the haunting song “Rivers of Babylon” heard in the 1972 Jamaican movie The Harder They Come: “By the rivers of Babylon, / Where we sat down, There we wept, / When we remembered Zion.” Among the displaced musicians is Khaira Arby, an elderly singer of international reputation called “the Nightingale of Mali,” who grieves for her lost home. “Timbuktu was so beautiful and gentle, you couldn’t even describe it,” she sighs. Being away from there, and away from her musical roots, is “like cutting the oxygen off.”
We also meet Fadimata Walet Oumar, a singer known as “Disco,” who works to help other refugee women and laments her life in exile, observing that in her culture, “It’s through music that we teach morality.” Disco is married to “Jimmy,” a former Malian general who joined the Tuareg MNLA separatist movement, only to see it co- opted by the jihadists. She tells us she had always vowed never to marry a military man, and she still seems a bit perplexed at how she wound up with one.
The morality of the jihadists who have seized the north comes into question from one of the members of the group Songhoy Blues, a quartet of young musicians who met in Bamako after fleeing their homes. “They [the jihadists] say you have to get rid of everything that’s not traditional,” he says, and then with a wry smile he points out that “their weapons are modern, their vehicles and their GPS are modern.”
Schwartz and cinematographer Karelle Walker capture some gorgeous footage around the city and the countryside near Bamako. One particularly captivating scene finds Songhoy Blues sitting on the banks of the Niger at dusk strumming their guitars and working on the composition of songs. The filmmakers also include news footage of battles, and a particularly unsettling bit of grainy film showing the Sharia punishment for stealing: the cutting off of a man’s hand.
Schwartz headed to Mali soon after hearing of the jihadist takeover and crack down on music, and she is able to follow the developments as Malian and French armies recapture the north and democratic elections are restored, and as Western music producers come to Bamako and discover Songhoy Blues and send the group on a tour of the UK. As the terror recedes, Arby and Disco begin planning a return to Timbuktu and a celebratory homecoming concert there. They come back to a war-ravaged city that is sometimes barely recognizable. “Everything had changed,” Disco says.
But our anticipation of a glorious musical climax isn’t paid in full. The music, which should be the heart and soul of this documentary, appears in the film enough to whet the appetite, but there is not enough of it, and the climactic concert never really takes flight.
Even so, the movie manages to provide an intriguing primer on the Malian culture, and the gulf between the living practice of Islam by the vast majority of its followers and the hijacking of the faith by extremists. It shows us the humanity of this landlocked people of Africa, and the music they can’t live without. “If we can’t have music,” Arby says, “that’s the end of us.”
Sounds in exile: Songhoy Blues